Spent a good deal of time dwelling on Dilla today for a quick piece on Good Hip Hop’s J. Dilla Tribute in Sebastopol next weekend. Then, drove to Petaluma with Like Water For Chocolate on the tape deck. The weird thing about Dilla is that as far as I remember (and I’m a little older than most people who seem to champion his genius between every meal), nobody—as in, not one solitary person I knew—liked Labcabincalifornia when it came out. Or The Love Movement. Or Amplified. All really, really reviled albums, they were.
Whether or not Dilla was ahead of his time is as pointless as wondering, as I did today, if there would eventually be someone else who decided to swap up the kick drum and offset the snare ever so slightly. That stumbling burble, his trademark—someone else surely would have thought it up, just like someone would have shook their hips and howled sexual innuendo on TV if Elvis hadn’t. Right?
All of this is to say that rap production is in some interesting hands right now, and those still worshipping Dilla should hopefully see that his spirit lives on in intrepid creativity if not outright aesthetic. Right around the time Dilla died, the Pack, from the Bay Area, had a left-field hyphy hit with “Vans,” which rode on a tiny snap beat, a tssst-tssst hi-hat and a synth sent from Mars. Its spirit owed slightly to the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” before it, and birthed a YouTube craze with the New Boyz’ “You’re a Jerk” in its wake.
Young L from the Pack released this new video for “Young L-E-N” today, and I hope its production hits the ears of mainstream beatmakers like Just Blaze. Not at all into the useless verses, but that’s hip-hop in 2010—the illest beats beneath filler lyrics. Dilla was lucky to have visionary MCs in the best of both worlds.
Just six years ago in 2002, a completely mixed crowd at the Phoenix Theater, much older, lost their heads and loudly sang along to every line of “Life is… Too Short.” Last night, in the middle of Too Short’s headlining set, the classic guitar hook came in and… nothing. Kids just stood there.
Everyone knew Too Short would have legs—he’s always had determination beyond his peers—but it’s a miracle how long those legs have reached. While most rappers his age (he’s 41) can’t get beyond their past glories, Too Short holds a rare set of reins on the here and now. The sold-out crowd went wild for new hits like “Blow the Whistle” and verses from his collaborations with Kelis (“Bossy”) and T-Pain (“I’m in Love with a Stripper,” amending his verse with shout-outs to Petaluma) but then stood in dumbfounded silence at Short’s career-making 1987 anthem, “Freaky Tales.”
Appealing to a new generation is one thing, but commanding enough concrete attention to build a Berlin Wall to the past is a hustle of another color.
The vibe at the Phoenix was hot and the whole night felt good. All eyes were on this show, and increased security and police couldn’t stop people from having a great time—it’d be like trying to keep a congregation from praying in church.
The Pack, Short’s protégées, commanded the stage with a solid set. Young groups with four distinct personalities always hit, and they’ve got the trick down: there’s the backpack guy in purple and pink; the Usher-type sex symbol in sagging jeans, white tank top and shades; the basic G in a sports cap and T-shirt; and the perpetually smiling laid-back guy in dreads. Now that they’re 18, they’ve graduated from rapping about bikes to rapping about cars. Bets currently being taken on which one has the most successful solo career (a 15-to-2 that they’ll stay together as long as Souls of Mischief).
Whoever does the Pack’s production has hip-hop minimalism mastered: “Vans” was deliciously razor-thin, but some of the newer songs last night used spare, fluttering basslines in a way that hasn’t been touched since Z-Trip & Del’s “Dynasty” 12”.
Erk tha Jerk, who I went out of my way to see, had pretty unique songs but the unforgiving crowd wasn’t feelin’ it at all, yelled “you suck” and threw their water at him. Shame. And J-Stalin was good, with one major problem that he shared with Erk; both of them rapped over their own vocal tracks. Why do fans let performers get away with that?
I will beat this horse to a bloody pulp: rapping over your own vocal tracks is the weakest shit ever. It’s not hard at all to make instrumentals, and it’ll allow the opportunity to showcase your skills instead of being lazy and relying on prerecorded vocals. Anyone with me on this one?
Despite that, everything else about the show was great, and hopefully hip hop will continue to thrive around here. Kudos to the people swimming through dire straits to make it happen: D-Sharpe, DJ Amen, Noizemakers, and, as ever, Tom Gaffey and the Phoenix Theater.